Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan is a geopolitical romp that ends on September 10, 2001. But the book was published in 2006 – so make no mistake – 9/11 hangs over the narrative like an ominous cloud. Don’t make this mistake either – though 9/11 was a tragedy and geopolitical catastrophe, the novel is a raunchy and satirical examination of life when you’re a geopolitical pawn. And we’re all geopolitical pawns.
As the narrator, Misha Borisovich Vainberg, tells us in the prologue, this is a “book about love. But it’s also a book about geography.” The story opens on June 15, 2001. Misha is 30 years old and the son of the 1238th richest man in Russia. That’s because his father is a kleptocrat.
During the 1990s Misha attended Accidental College in the mid-west. As a result he adores America and rap music. His rapper name is Snack Daddy, because he loves all the snacks that have turned him into a self-described “fatso”. Unfortunately, his father called him back to Russia, and he is stuck there because dad killed a politically connected Oklahoman in St. Petersburg. Now the U.S. won’t let Misha back.
Misha hates Russia and its corrupt transition from the Soviet Union – even though he has benefitted tremendously from that corruption. “These miscreants were our country’s rulers. To survive in their world, one has to wear many hats – perpetrator, victim, silent bystander.” He’s desperate to get back to his girlfriend in the Bronx – so desperate he travels to Absurdistan, where he has been promised a Belgian passport that will enable him to finally return to the U.S.
Absurdistan does not exist in the real world. I googled it. However, in the novel it is one of the Stans in the former Soviet Union. It consists of several ethnic groups, and they all hate each other. As soon as Misha shows up, civil war breaks out and the borders are closed. Each ethnic group wants to use Misha for its own political purposes, and Misha wants to use them to escape to the Bronx and his girlfriend. Sex, humor, and violence ensue.
Similar to Candide, Misha is a “holy fool” who is wrong about pretty much everything. Near the novel’s end he confesses, “I thought I was Different and had a Special Story to tell but I guess I’m not and I don’t.” Fortunately, he’s wrong about that as well.
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor